Last night I attended Akron Film + Pixel‘s Indie Games: Play and Discuss, and (among other things) played a game called Home, by Benjamin Rivers. As it turned out, it seemed that there was a bit more Play than Discuss at this event, so I thought I’d review it the day after.
This game held my interest enough to play through it once, which was all I had time for. I don’t know that I’d play it again, although I gather from the ending that if I did play it again, it would be a different experience of a different story, assuming I made different choices.
Unfortunately, I didn’t find the choices to be all that interesting. Do I pick up the gun or do I leave it where it is? Do I pick up the key or do I leave it where it is? Do I pick up my wallet now that I’ve found it, or do I leave it where it is? Do I flip the switch or do I leave it alone for now, only to come back later and flip the switch because that’s the only way forward? Do I look at the thing that automatically highlights when I walk by it so I can get another element of the story, or do I no longer care and just want to continue walking until I get to the end of the game? I DON’T KNOW, ALL THESE DECISIONS ARE TOO MUCH FOR ME! WHAT WOULD YOU DO?!
Apparently if you make different choices, the story that unfolds in flashback as you walk through this amnesiac world trying to put the pieces together and figure out if you’re a murderer or not changes. Not that your decisions affect the future, but that your decisions somehow retroactively affect the past, such that, as you recall in flashback what happened before you blacked out, what you recall will be different based on what you did or didn’t decide to do in the present.
This might make it seem interesting, but when all the story elements are as boring as they are likely to be (based on the ones I actually saw when I played through it), probably you don’t care what other stories you might have crafted had you made different decisions enough to actually go back and make those different decisions in order to find out. After your play-through, there’s an invitation to share your story on the game’s web site, so if anyone actually does that, I suppose you can find out how things worked out differently for them based on their choices, but it all seems so boring an uninteresting that I really have to question the sensibility of anyone who’d actually spend time describing what they’d been through on a web site, other than as a to warning to others. Ahem. Like this.
Home bills itself as a horror game, but the only thing horrible about it might be that it could have been interesting and immersive, but wasn’t. Each play-through feels very linear (despite the fact that you can make choices that change what you remember happened in the past), provides no danger or challenge or conflict, every bit of blood in the game has already been shed before you begin playing, and the tension that rises as the story unfolds while you re-discover your recent past never sufficiently pulls itself into the present moment. The apparent climax, when you decide whether you find the body of your wife in your cellar, or whether you don’t find her and realize that she must have never actually existed except as a delusion, leaving you with even more unanswered questions that never get answered, is the textbook definition of anticlimax.
As I played, I kept expecting to run into someone else — anyone — maybe my girlfriend/wife, maybe someone (a familiar friend? a stranger?) I’d need to rescue or team up with in order to survive, maybe the killer(s), or even the police — would they keep me safe? Would they arrest me? Would I have to convince them of my innocense somehow? Were these items I was picking up going to incriminate me? Did picking up the gun protect me from the murderer finding the gun and using it against me, or did it implicate me in the murders that had already happened, whether I’d actually perpetrated them or not? There were so many ways which the plot could have developed that would have made the game vibrant and interesting. But none of that ever happened.
What else can I say about it? The pacing is slow. There’s no run button, no jump button, no way to go any faster through the game. There’s a tiny bit of exploration offered, but it’s not terribly interesting. The pixel art graphics are OK to pretty good, and I do like pixel art, but when blown up to fullscreen, there’s so much jpeg artifacting (or what looks like it) that it ruins the work put into it.
Worst of all, there are parts where I wanted to go backward, and was prevented from doing so by the game telling me “You don’t want to do that.” I think I should be the one who decides what I want! I guess I should thank it for sparing me from wasting time going back to someplace that will not advance the game, but it’s much better to provide an external reason, as it does in certain parts of the game, than a “you just don’t feel like it, sorry” reason that is total bullshit.
And there are so many unanswered questions: What happened to everyone? Who was the killer? Is anyone still alive besides you? Why do you need a flashlight everywhere you go, even outdoors, or indoors in places where there should be light?
In fairness, I did not get to play the game with sound, so it could be that I’m missing out on some crucial elements that would have made the experience more enjoyable, even worthwhile. And to be honest, I didn’t find myself hating the game so much while I was playing it, as I did after once I had been through everything and realized that that’s all there was. It just built up to something that it never delivered. I did continue playing it, hoping that the plot would deepen until it got better. It just never did. Home tries to offer an interesting interactive narrative, and while it does contain a good bit more narrative than many videogames, that doesn’t make it good narrative, or a good videogame. Other narrative art forms give you way more (read any halfway decent book!) and other video games give you more as well (pick your poison).
I don’t get it. There are plenty of positive reviews for the game. Is it possible that I simply made all of the most boring choices possible, resulting in an anemic plot where nothing drastic actually happens, in spite of copious dead bodies found nearly everywhere, without sufficient explanation other than maybe you did it? Or is this some kind of “art game” that is great art because it turns the notion of a game on its head, and offers for your consideration that a game can be boring, thereby challenging your notions about what games are about?
I won’t recommend staying away from Home if you are in the mood for reliving the experimental 80’s text adventure genre in a rather dull implementation that offers barely any puzzle beyond how to navigate around the screens and no interesting choices or decisions. If you absolutely have to play every game in this genre, then so you shall. Otherwise, there’s probably something better you could do with your time, like trim your toenails or perhaps watch an aquarium full of snails.